The New England Patriots addition of FB Glenn Gronkowski made headlines because of the surname, but it reveals more about how the Patriots perceive the fullback position.
James Develin ranks 3rd in the NFL for snaps by a fullback with 64 (30% of the Patriots offensive snaps). He trails only Broncos FB Andy Janovich and Panthers FB Mike Tolbert. Perhaps it’s telling that the three best teams in 2015 lead the league in fullback snaps, but I think it’s a better indicator of a team’s commitment to the rushing attack, with all three teams ranking in the top 10 of rushing percentage.
The Patriots were in big trouble last season when Develin was lost with a broken leg and the running game never recovered. ESPN’s Mike Reiss notes that the Patriots have signed Gronkowski with this issue in mind.
“When Develin broke his leg in the third preseason game last year, the team didn’t have much depth behind him and essentially played the year without a lead-blocking fullback, which is a scenario it hopes to avoid in 2016,” Reiss writes in his Sunday notes. “So that’s why the Patriots signed fullback Glenn Gronkowski to their practice squad Saturday, and also why veteran fullback Marcel Reece was in for a workout late last week. It has been said that the old-school fullback was on the verge of extinction, but it’s made a comeback of sorts in New England so far this year.”
Develin has paved the way for RB LeGarrette Blount to lead the league in rushing yards and so the Patriots can run out the clock in the fourth quarter. His teammates often call him the best fullback in the league and while head coach Bill Belichick won’t use that same language, he will praise Develin’s ability, comparing him to the quarterback of the rushing attack.
“He's a very smart player, he has good instincts and in the running game when you're the second-level blocker that he is as a fullback you have a lot of things you have to sort out,” Belichick said. “Even though you have a blocking assignment there are things that happen in front of you whereas if you're an offensive linemen you're blocking the guy in front of you where there's nothing between you and him most of the time.
“When you're a fullback there are a lot of things that can happen as you go to your assignment. There could be other things that maybe guys move, they twist, they change positions, there's penetration and you have to make those decisions so a lot of that is decision making. Similar to a running back when he has the ball but in the fullbacks case he really is the running back or the eyes of the running back in terms of taking the right course to the entry point in the play and so forth.
“He does a real good job of making those decisions of doing the right thing, making the smart decision. Regardless of what his assignment is there is a decision making process within the play that might trump that. Similar to a quarterback following his reads or progression that if something happens and you have to make an alternative decision based on the circumstances of that play then that's what he has to do. I'd say he does a good job of that but I mean he's a very smart guy.”
Develin is like a quarterback in the backfield, going through his reads of the defense to make sure the running back can follow him into the open field. He will be a free agent after this season, so don’t be surprised if he receives a contract extension in the coming months.
The Patriots have added Baby Gronk because they want to avoid a single injury derailing the entire rushing offense. Gronk is a good fullback and a viable receiver, but Develin is well integrated in the offense. Still, perhaps Gronkowski is more than just a one-week rental and could stick around as a hedge against a potential injury to Develin.
Hopefully Develin will remain healthy to lead block Blount atop the league rushing tables.
“[Develin is] a very dependable player,” Belichick noted, “a dependable person, you can count on him day after day, offseason program, training camp, in-season, meetings, practice.”